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Effort to Aid Drug Users Criticized

Ventura County Grand Jury says Prop. 36 has been badly mishandled locally, resulting in a threat to public health and safety. D.A. agrees.

June 22, 2004|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

A voter-mandated program that steers drug offenders to treatment instead of jail has been so badly managed that it has "compromised public safety and health," according to a scathing report released by the Ventura County Grand Jury on Monday.

The 93-page report echoes observations made over the last year by local law enforcement officials, who say that the county's Proposition 36 drug treatment effort may have contributed to an increase in crime.

"Everyone in law enforcement wants to see drug offenders treated and change their behavior," said Dist. Atty. Greg Totten. "But if you strictly focus on a touchy-feely social services treatment model, it doesn't take into account the danger these people can pose."

Officials of the county's Behavioral Health Department, which runs the 3-year-old program, were unavailable for comment Monday. In the past, they have deemed the program an overall success, saying that initial cure rates seemed low because substance abusers new to treatment frequently backslide.

Proposition 36 was passed by statewide initiative in November 2000. It requires counties to divert many nonviolent drug offenders into treatment but allows some latitude in how to do so.

According to the grand jury, the behavioral health agency has put the best face on a dismal record, becoming "the lone agency continuing to declare itself victorious in the county's war on drugs."

Program officials have deliberately distorted statistics, the report contended.

"This apparent mishandling of discretion reflects badly on Prop. 36 and it reflects badly on Ventura County," it said.

The grand jury criticized the program for allegedly neglecting to compile reliable data, failing to do enough random testing and refusing to fully share with law enforcement agencies the results of tests that have been done.

Under the law, offenders in the program face jail if they test positive for drugs three times -- but the grand jury and local police say they're not promptly informed when that happens.

"Here we can have five or 10 dirty tests before a person is even reported back to the court," Totten said.

Such criticisms have been voiced by prosecutors elsewhere, said Judy Appel, an attorney who works in Oakland for the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that campaigned for Proposition 36.

"They want to squeeze it into a criminal justice framework, with lots of court dates, as much disclosure of confidential information as possible and a big hammer to swing over their heads," she said.

For example, law enforcement officials object to the county's refusal to disclose incriminating test results that appear in an offender's first 30 days in the program.

But such refusal meets the standards of both the law and common sense, Appel said.

"At least 50% of these people never have been able to access treatment before," she said. "It takes more than one time for most people to get off drugs. The fact that Ventura County has set it up so individuals have a bit of time to get settled into their treatment makes all the public health sense in the world, but it's threatening to prosecutors."

For their part, police in Ventura County say local crime rates are elevated in part because drug offenders have not been incarcerated as they once were.

"In virtually every community in the county, theft is going up," Totten said, acknowledging that the link with Proposition 36 is "anecdotal."

The grand jury recommended that the program be removed from the control of behavioral health officials and placed in the hands of the county executive officer. It also called for more frequent drug testing and immediate disclosure of results to law enforcement.

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